[Viewpoint] The need for professionals

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[Viewpoint] The need for professionals

The cabinet of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, which was sworn in earlier this month in the ceremonious closing of a half-century of one-party rule, offers something different. Unlike most Japanese politicians, these guys have a backbone made of science and engineering. Hatoyama himself is a rarity among Japanese prime ministers. He studied engineering in Tokyo University and Stanford University. Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who also heads the National Strategy Bureau, majored in physics at Tokyo Institute of Technology. And Hirofumi Hirano, chief cabinet secretary, studied science and engineering at Chuo University in Tokyo.

Key aides to the Hatoyama administration, which has announced a departure from the old profligate ways, are skilled in the art of precision and economy. Kyoto University professor Sawako Takeuchi observed that a leader trained as an engineer might place greater interest and influence on environmental and resource issues. “An era where politics and science merge has now begun,” she said.

Our country is the opposite. We also place priority on policies geared toward green growth and new resources, yet we lack leaders with expertise in the field. Among 127 senior officials ranking above the vice-ministerial level, only nine, or 7 percent, are proficient in science and technology. There is only one among cabinet ministers - Lee Dal-gon, minister of public administration and security - who holds an undergraduate degree in engineering, as well as a doctorate in policy science. The Presidential Office is worse off. Of 50 secretary-level presidential aides, only three, or 6 percent, are from the engineering field. There are none among senior secretaries. Such scarcity in engineer trainees among bureaucrats often works against them. The National Science and Technology Council hammers science and technology policies out, but its executive members - the head (president), vice chairman (education, science and technology minister) and secretary (chief presidential secretary on education, science and cultural affairs) - are all unversed in the field. No wonder the government’s science and technology policies lack depth and feasibility, often succumbing to political influence.

The problem is not momentary, but inherent under our administrative structure. President Lee Myung-bak merged two innately different entities - the education ministry with the science and technology ministry upon inauguration. Science and technology affairs are future-oriented while many of the education policies are urgent issues. The position of minister or chief secretary therefore is naturally filled by an education specialist, leaving the highest science-policy making faculty in the hands of non-professionals. The situation with the Korea Communications Commission in charge of telecommunications policies is no different with the dissipation of the information and communications ministry. At the helm of non-professionals, science and technology policies lost their experimental edge and drifted astray when confronted with unexpected challenges.

The Lee Myung-bak administration is well aware of the importance of scientific and technology progress for our country’s future. It has increased the budget for state research and development projects despite fiscal difficulties, and it has improved the performance-based grant system for researchers at state-invested institutions.

But what matters aren’t good intentions, but satisfactory outcomes. We cannot indulge ourselves in catching up with research and development progress in advanced markets. We have to take the initiative in new technology for others to follow. We cannot do so without experts with prowess in science and technology to initiate and implement new projects pertinent to our market. But our current government structure cannot meet such demand.

A year and half has passed since the administration ran on a new structure. But incorporation of the education ministry with the science and technology ministry and the closing of the communications ministry has generated more harm than good. The government has appointed aides on science and technology as well as telecommunication, but their role is limited due to lack of administrative backup. We need a control tower to coordinate projects in science and technology to steer towards green growth and the advanced market.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


The writer is a physics professor at Seoul National University.

by Oh Se-jung

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